Any of you who follow me on Twitter know that, as happy as I am with the tone, cast, and overall style of Supergirl, I’ve also expressed sincere doubts that they’ll make it to a second season, or, at this rate, even finish out the first. That’s not because of anything the actors are doing, but rather the fault of the writer(s). Simply put, they’re rushing through it, hurling the character as fast as possible at the grand epic battles. And that is pretty much the most tried and true classic mistake with any Superman style character.
Here’s the thing about writing superheroes like that: loads of people make the assumption that as the power-level of the character increases, so should the spectacle of their challenges. We can watch Batman beat up street thugs no matter which incarnation he’s in, because he’s mortal. There’s always a real chance that one of them can land a lucky punch and knock him off his game, creating tension. With characters like Superman and Supergirl, however, that low-level danger doesn’t exist. No random bank robber is going to hurt them, thus there’s no danger-tension in those moments. So writers escalate as quickly as possible, even in origin stories, to get past the small stuff and into the real fights with the final bosses. Because that’s where they think those characters work best.
But the truth is, the big battles are often the least interesting moments these characters have, and that’s compounded significantly if they breeze through the small-scale stuff. We, as readers and viewers, know that Supergirl won’t lose the final battle, unless maybe Joss Whedon is directing. We understand how superhero narrative works, at least in regard to those characters. Upping the size and scale of the battle doesn’t actually increase the tension. All it does is increase the spectacle. Those of you who saw Man of Steel know exactly what I’m talking about.
The truth is, overpowered characters like the Superman family shine far better in small moments than they do big ones. The minutia, the day to day of trying to live a double life and letting things slip through the cracks, that opens the ground for genuine tension because while Superman might be unbeatable, Clark Kent can fail. He can have to make choices about what is important to him. He can lose. He can show us that being the world’s protector isn’t free, even for him. It comes with personal sacrifice. Honestly, without Clark Kent, Superman is far less compelling.
And this principle doesn’t just apply to their human side. Going back to Supergirl, in Episode Two it’s rightly pointed out that she doesn’t actually know jackshit about heroing, and that her escapades so far have come with significant collateral damage. I got excited when they went down that road, because that is fertile ground for enjoyable story-telling. Having all the power, but not yet knowing the right way to wield it. Her mistakes would impact the way the city saw her, and there would be real tension during her exploits, because while she might not be at risk, the city and its opinion of her would be, and for a new superhero that could be hard to work through.
Unfortunately, they patched what easily could and should have been a season long arc in a single montage. And I know why. It’s the small bits, the minutia, and someone on the show thought people wouldn’t want to see it. Which, by the way, is literally insane given the track record of current superhero television shows. Arrow, Flash, and Daredevil all took the long way to starting up, shit Arrow didn’t even get the Green Arrow name until several seasons in. They went slow, building up their characters a piece at a time, letting them try, and fail, and suffer consequences for those failures. And those shows are doing great in the ratings.
Hell, let’s compare apples to apples. The longest running Superman show (I don’t have a prior Supergirl one to use, so this will have to do) of all time was Smallville at ten seasons. Whether it should have gone on that long is debatable, but it blows every other iteration out of the water in terms of running time, and the entire premise of that show is the minutia. Clark learning, and growing, and getting a little better each step of the way. Small-scale risks and failures that lead to bigger consequences. And yes, Smallville does technically star Clark pre-Superman, but Lois & Clark had a similar focus and enjoyed solid reviews along with a four season run.
I’ll even put my money where my mouth is and talk about one of my own creations: Owen Daniels a.k.a. Titan. To be honest, writing Titan was something of a test for myself. I love Superman, and I’ve admitted it on many occasions, but the stuff starring him is often so poorly crafted that it’s hard to stick up for the guy. I wanted to see if I could actually do any better. And the first thing I realized when drawing up the story was that the joy of the tale would be in playing to my characters weaknesses. Yes, he can kick the shit out of most people on a battlefield, so battlefields were going to be rarely visited. I think Titan shines better when he’s trying to figure out how to navigate the press, or connect with his new team, or understand his place in a world that changed while he was away. In those venues, his missteps still carry consequences, maybe not to his physical health, but his mental well-being, as he’s still fragile after all he’s been through. Whether the story works for every reader is up to them to decide, however, as an author I feel like I found a way to bring tension to a nigh-unbeatable character, and I’m pretty happy with that accomplishment. Which, just to drive the point home, I did by focusing on the small-scale stuff.
I’m not trying to say that no one likes to watch it when Superman fights Doomsday or anything like that. We do love the big ones, we really do, but when you skip the everyday character stuff, you also skip the one element that can add tension to those final fights. Yes, Superman won’t die, yet he might fail to save everyone he loves. And yes, I know they always cram the usual side-characters into peril during those sequences, but how often do they take the time to really make us believe there’s a connection there? How often do they show Superman in the quiet moments, genuinely happy and in love with his adopted planet? Exploring the potential fury of a man who lost his entire world, and can’t mentally bear the thought of losing any more? Those are the pieces that make the big fights more than spectacle, and by skipping past them, all it does is weaken the product as a whole.
Take the time to develop your characters fully. No matter how big or bad they are, pay attention to the small moments, the little things. That is what actually builds the character, makes the reader genuinely care about them, and experience terror at what they’ll go through if things go awry. I said it in the title, and I’ll say it here: Minutia Matters, especially with more powerful characters.
I’m going to close with one of my favorite visual examples to ever sum up this discussion, and underline why Man of Steel so fundamentally missed the mark. The first part is from All Star Superman, I have no idea who put together the rest despite ample Google Image searching. All I know is that it came from Randall Maynard’s twitter (https://twitter.com/randallmaynard) and for me it was love at first sight.